The Best eLearning Authoring Tools Of 2016

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Training employees is easier than ever before. Whether you're employing third-party training content from sites as diverse as Harvard.com to LinkedIn, or using an online learning platform of your own, it's easy to train employees in new job skills, employee policies, or even general interest topics for off-hour enjoyment. However, to deliver custom training content, you'll either need to hire an expert to create such courseware or do it yourself using eLearning authoring tools.

In this article, we'll examine five of the best eLearning authoring tools we've seen in the market, most of which deliver training content built to specific standards. We'll tell you what to look for when making a purchase and give an overview of what makes each tool unique. To test these tools, we were either given access to a demo account by the vendor or we signed up for a trial account through the vendor's webpage. Within each tool, we attempted to create an eLearning course and quizzes by using traditional and investigative means—meaning, we tested the tools as they are intended to be used but we also pushed them to see if they could perform out-of-the-box tasks.

After testing each tool and weighing the pros and cons for each, we determined that Articulate Storyline 2 (which begins at $1,398) is our Editors' Choice in the eLearning authoring tools category. We found it to be the most feature-rich, the most adequately priced, and the easiest to use. It's definitely worth a test run. However, keep in mind that what's good for PCMag might not necessarily be what's good for your business, so be sure to read all of our eLearning authoring tool reviews and match up your specific needs with each offering's key features.

Pricing and Plans
Before purchasing your software, it's important to determine how the solution will be delivered to your business. This bit of information will help prepare you for cost analysis. For example, will your software be a downloadable, local file that lives on a specific device? Or will the tool be cloud-based and accessible via a web log-in? Cloud-based tools in this category tend to be less expensive and more flexible in terms of who uses the tool and where they'll be using it. If you've got an H5P log-in, then you can access your account on any device, in any location. Cloud-based tools can also be updated remotely, so any new features or pricing options can be accessed without completely changing the tool on the user's end.

The only problem: because HP5 is cloud-based, you'll need internet access to log into your account. Other tools, such as Storyline 2 and TechSmith's Camtasia Studio 8, are desktop apps. In order to run those programs, you'll need to download the applications onto your desktop. You'll be able to use the tools whether you have internet access or not, but you're limited to the one device; whenever the next version of the tool is released, you'll have to manually upgrade by purchasing and downloading the new software.

At the bottom end of the pricing spectrum is H5P, a free, open-source tool, which is ideal for one-off content creation or for small businesses that don't have budget to apply to training content. H5P is easy to use, takes only minutes to get up and running, and will plug in nicely to your WordPress or Drupal content management systems (CMSes). But because it's a free tool, it lacks some of the rich multimedia functionality that is available on other eLearning authoring tools. If price is your sole consideration, then H5P is the best option on the market.

Shift eLearning offers the customer-friendly pricing model in that it lets users scale as their needs grow or shrink. Shift starts with a barebones free tool, which can be used by one person to create one course of up to 120 HTML5 screens. Again, this is great for content creators who only need to produce one course a year or for teams that have many different creators who can access and build on the system. You can go to the next tier, which cosgts $1,200 per year for one user for up to three courses of 120 screens each, or you can become a "Power User" and gain access to an unlimited number of courses of unlimited length with 30 reviewers who can comment on and make suggestions to your training content. Shift's Enterprise plan is the biggest and boldest plan we've reviewed. With it you get access to three users, 30 reviewers, an unlimited number of courses, and nearly endless scalability for a whopping $8,500 a year.

If you think $8,500 is expensive for the high-end version of a tool, Elucidat costs $7,500 at its basic and only price level. Articulate Storyline 2, which also comes in only one model, costs $1,398 for one user license. Articulate Storyline 2, Elucidat, and Shift eLearning are the most expensive but also the most capable eLearning authoring tools we've reviewed. They're built for midsize and large enterprises that conduct consistent and distinct training sessions throughout the year. Of these three, we think Articulate Storyline 2's price is the most palatable when weighing functionality and ease-of-use. However, if you need something that can scale, you should choose Shift eLearning.

TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8's price is difficult to compare to that of other eLearning authoring tools. It features a relatively low price tag of $299 for one license (with big discounts coming after the fifth license purchased) but it's primarily a video-based tool. We'll delve into this more in the next section but it's fair to say that, if your company is focused on creating video-only training sessions, TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8 is your best bet when factoring in functionality and cost.

Features and Functionality
All of the tools we reviewed in this roundup provide basic features that you should consider must-haves for the eLearning authoring tool you ultimately choose. For example, the ability to include video in training content is a no-brainer. All of the tools we reviewed offer different levels of video functionality; for example, Articulate Storyline 2 and TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8 allow you to record video directly from your webcam into a course. But they all offer at least the bare minimum, which is the ability to insert a video link into a course. If you test other tools that don't give you at least that much functionality, then look elsewhere.

Another ubiquitous feature is the ability to drag and drop elements without a course from one place to another. This is a quick and easy way to develop your courses. This feature lets you develop your courses without having to learn to code or use multiple keystrokes and browser loads to get from element to element.

The tools we reviewed each allow you to save your courses as online and local files. This means you can send your completed course as a link that people access via their web browsers or you can send them a file that they will download and open from their desktop. This feature gives you the flexibility to load files into any online learning software or send files to anyone who does or doesn't have access to the learning software. It also lets people take courses whether or not they have internet access at all times.

Even H5P, the lowest-priced tool, offers a wide array of different course creation templates that you can use to begin creating content. This is a must-have feature, especially for companies that require training content but don't have an in-house designer. The amount of templates you have depends on how much you paid for your system; H5P offers 20 templates while Elucidat offers roughly 25,000 page templates and subtemplates. So keep templates in mind when you make your final purchasing decision.

Other Key Features
The ability to import Microsoft PowerPoint slide decks into your eLearning authoring tool is a nice feature that you should look for when making your final selection. Because so much of your company's content is likely created in PowerPoint, the ability to upload slides as ready-made courses or as a near-complete course will save you loads of time and effort. Unfortunately, H5P and Shift eLearning don't allow you to do this, which means you'll have to convert all of your old PowerPoint training materials into brand-new documents within the authoring tools.

If your business doesn't have access to a stock photo account, then you'll appreciate the vast image libraries that Articulate Storyline 2 and Elucidat offer. These libraries are troves of business-focused images that you can use to illustrate your training content. H5P doesn't offer an image library but, because it's a free tool, you shouldn't let this factor alone sway your decision.

Embedding webpages isn't absolutely necessary for training materials. But if you plan to have users access online content during courses and you don't want them to leave the online learning system or the training console, then you'll want a tool that can embed webpages into training content. This feature lets users click on a link and view an entire website from within the confines of the authoring tool or the content management system in which they're viewing your content. Only Articulate Storyline 2 and Elucidat offer this feature.

Companies that are design-focused will want a tool that enables creators to work outside of the confines of HTML5. Unfortunately, only Articulate Storyline 2 and Elucidat allow this to happen. The other tools require you to work within strict templates and architectural parameters. Most basic users won't care about this option (we'll be so happy to have the help), but someone who creates web-based content for a living will wish to have their handcuffs removed.

Screen recording is the most important feature that you can't find on every eLearning authoring tool. For software-based companies, the ability to watch someone navigate a website is integral to operations. Think about it: If you work at Netflix and you need to train people to use the site, then the easiest thing to do would be to record your screen as you navigate through different categories and menus. Unfortunately, Elucidat and H5P don't offer this option, which means you'll have to work with a third-party tool to capture your cursor and webpage movements. This is a huge knock on Elucidat, which is otherwise a wonderful and easy-to-use tool.

Unique Features
More than anything, Articulate Storyline 2 is designed with PowerPoint users in mind. Its course-creation layout is a near-replica to what you'll find when you open Microsoft's presentation tool. The homage to PowerPoint makes Articulate Storyline 2 easy to pick up and use, as does the mind-boggling number of interactive elements that allow for out-of-the-box course and quiz creation. The tool features easy-to-add buttons and markers that allow you to easily layer content with text, image, and video via pop-out boxes that hover above the original slide. Articulate Storyline's Number Variable tool lets you ask users to input multiple numbers that then get factored into a decision.

For example, if you wanted to determine how healthy the learner is based on how they answer a predefined set of questions (how many hours of sleep do you get each night or how many drinks do you have), then you could predetermined score ranges for healthy, unhealthy, sickly, and then add the responses up for an overall health score. The tool's screen recording functionality is the best we reviewed; it enables users to retroactively change the duration of the cursor's movement during a presentation and even adjust cursor movements so that you can make straight paths. When a video is put in "test mode," the software automatically generates hotspots for correct answers based on the cursor's movements; the tool automatically removes the cursor from the video so that you can test a learner's comprehension. It's easy to see why this tool was named Editors' Choice.

Elucidat isn't too shabby, either. The tool features a gorgeous home screen with modern, upper-central navigation with pathways and buttons that are clearly marked. Pages are incredibly easy to create once you've selected from a predetermined template. You are essentially given a WYSIWYG format for creating content. You'll type in text and upload images within the allotted sections determined by your chosen templates. Elucidat does an excellent of job guiding you through the creation and publication process. For example, as you finalize a project, a cool instructional video pops out to give you feedback on your course release options. The most impressive Elucidat feature is the responsive slider tool, which lets you preview how specific pages will look and perform on any device or any resolution. You select a device, resolution, or form factor from a drop-down menu, and the page on which you're working appears on your desktop as it would on the selected device.

Although Shift eLearning is a bit more cluttered and confusing than we'd like, its templated format is the quickest to navigate once you've mastered the user interface. Shift includes a games library to its console that you can add to courses. Although we don't imagine many companies will be adding Shift eLearning-based baseball and basketball games to course content, this is still a nice add-on feature. If you're designing courses for the hearing impaired, then Shift eLearning offers an excellent captioning feature that automatically pulls in text to your audio files so that learners can read spoken words.

Camtasia is fantastic for both video and software-based content. Screen recording is especially easy. The tool lets you choose whether you want to record the full screen or just a zoomed in area. You can also add cursor highlight effects to show exactly how and where the mouse is moving, or, like Articulate Storyline 2, you can remove the cursor entirely by adjusting its opacity. You can use the tool to zoom, pan, animate, and move things around after you've recorded video in order to help demonstrate important points during your lesson.

For example, if you've recorded a child playing with a ball, then you can zoom in on the child's face in order to see her smile without altering other aspects of the video. Animated callouts allow you to draw squares or arrows around specific aspects of your video to highlight distinct elements. You can also pause one side of the screen (for example, when a talking head has finished his lecture) while the other side plays (for example, the talking head's cursor moves along the screen).

H5P is free and easy to use. It's also great for turning pre-existing videos into interactive video. Although you can't record video within the tool itself, you'll be able to layer video content with seven different question formats, text, pop-ups, and full-blown quizzes.

Any one of these tools will provide you with enough functionality to create solid courses. They are each quite distinct and prices vary dramatically, so hopefully you'll be able to use this roundup to pare down your priorities. We will continue to test new tools and retest these tools as they are updated by their manufacturers. Happy hunting.

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